Fighting stops MH17 investigators reaching Ukraine crash site

Fighting stops MH17 investigators reaching Ukraine crash site
CNN
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Tuesday, July 29, 2014 - 5:15am

International investigators and observers were again prevented from reaching the crash site of downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Tuesday by fierce fighting in the area between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces.

The Dutch Justice Ministry said the team was unable to leave the city of Donetsk because "there is too much fighting at the moment on and near the route to the disaster site."

The 50-person team of Dutch and Australian experts, accompanied by monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was also forced to abandon its attempts to reach the site on Sunday and Monday.

The latest setback comes as EU ambassadors prepare to discuss broader sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, in line with new measures to be taken by Washington.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said that a Russian-made missile system was used to shoot down Flight 17 from rebel territory. Russia and the rebels have disputed the allegations and blamed Ukraine for the crash.

Twelve days since MH17 was blown out of the sky, the Dutch investigators in charge of finding out what happened have yet to lay eyes on the wreckage or the human remains believed still to be strewn across the huge debris field near the town of Torez.

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine had said earlier Tuesday via Twitter that "intensive planning" was under way to reach the crash site "as soon as it is safe to do so."

Pieter Jaap Aalbersberg, head of the Dutch repatriation mission, said in a statement late Monday that the team had turned back to Donetsk then because of gunfire near the town of Shaktarsk.

"The experts and I are deeply disappointed that we were unable to reach the crash site again," he said.

"It is frustrating to have to wait to do the job they came to do. Their motivation comes from the deep conviction that the relatives are entitled to have their loved ones and their personal effects returned to them. At the same time, we have to guarantee the safety of our people."

Aalbersberg said the OSCE was talking to all sides in the conflict to try to secure safe access. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop are also pursuing diplomatic avenues in Kiev, he said.

Aalbersberg said the search for victims was the team's top priority. "If the experts find remains, they will be recovered immediately," he said, using a refrigerated train wagon near Torez. "If the train is inaccessible for whatever reason, we will arrange other transport. We will not leave any remains behind."

OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told CNN's "New Day" on Monday that the monitors were "really sick and tired of being delayed" in their vital mission.

"We all know there are still human remains out there exposed to the elements, number one," he said. "Secondly, it is one of the biggest open crime scenes in the world as we speak, and it is not secured. There's no security perimeter around the 30- or 35-square-kilometer site."

Tougher sanctions

Representatives from EU member states are meeting Tuesday in Brussels to consider their next steps over Russia's alleged involvement in Ukraine's conflict.

The new proposals include sanctions on weapons, goods that can be used for both civilian and military purposes, access to European capital markets and on the export of energy technology from Europe to Russia.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken announced Monday that the United States would place new sanctions on Russia this week, without elaborating.

U.S. President Barack Obama held a joint call Monday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in which the leaders decided further steps were needed to put pressure on Russia.

They agreed that Russia has failed to deescalate the crisis, a spokesman for Cameron said, and that "even since MH17 was shot down, Russia continues to transfer weapons across the border and to provide practical support to the separatists.

"Leaders agreed that the international community should therefore impose further costs on Russia and specifically that Ambassadors from across the EU should agree a strong package of sectoral sanctions as swiftly as possible."

Japan announced its own assets freeze Monday against Russian individuals and companies it believes to be involved in fostering instability in eastern Ukraine and in Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

Russia's Foreign Ministry responded Tuesday by warning that the move would harm relations between their two nations and was an "unfriendly and short-sighted step based on deeply mistaken view about the real causes of what is happening in Ukraine."

Tokyo "encouraging Russia to take action" was particularly inappropriate, the ministry said. "We would like to point out the fact that the Russian side was the first to call for an open and impartial international investigation of the circumstances of the tragedy."

U.N.: Impartial investigation needed

The United Nations and other countries have repeatedly called for a cease-fire to allow investigators a safe working environment at the crash site, which the U.N. human rights chief said Monday could be the scene of a war crime.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that what happened "may amount to a war crime."

"It is imperative that a prompt, thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigation be conducted into this event," Pillay said.

As of Monday, 227 coffins bearing remains from the crashed plane had been sent to the Netherlands, where forensic investigators were working to identify them.

Of the 298 people killed in the crash, 193 were Dutch, 43 were Malaysian, and 27 were Australian.

More than 200 forensics experts from all over the world are working at a Dutch military base to identify the remains.

Cruise missile tests claim

Also Monday, the United States accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing cruise missile tests that date to 2008, senior State Department and White House officials said.

"This is a very serious matter which we have attempted to address with Russia for some time now," said a senior State Department official.

Russia's suspected violation of the treaty was first reported Monday by The New York Times.

The violation was for cruise missile tests that date back to 2008, prompting an administration review as to whether the tests are in violation of the 1987 treaty between the United States and Russia banning medium range missiles.

Officials told CNN that Washington had called for senior-level talks, but insisted the situation was not related to the violence in Ukraine.

-- CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reported from Donetsk and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN's Michael Pearson, Susannah Palk, Mick Krever and Lindsay Isaac contributed to this report.

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